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[FRANKFURT] German railways operator Deutsche Bahn on Thursday announced an end to a drivers strike that had paralysed train travel in Europe's biggest economy, after the feuding sides agreed to mediation.
But fresh trouble appeared to be brewing elsewhere, as the biggest rail union threatened industrial action if a pay deal was not reached soon.
While Deutsche Bahn (DB) said it would probably take until Saturday for normal services to resume, "millions of rail passengers can breathe a sigh of relief".
"The GdL (train driver union) strike is over with immediate effect," it said in a statement, adding that the company and the union had agreed overnight to have a mediator appointed to settle their months-long dispute over wages, work hours and negotiating rights.
DB said it was "pulling out all the stops" for services to return to normal as soon as possible.
"This could take some time," said DB's head of personnel Ulrich Weber.
"While regional and local trains can be expected to return to normal as early as Friday, the process will take longer in long-distance services because of the more complex planning needed for personnel and trains," Weber said.
Long-distance services were expected to return to normal by Saturday.
GdL, for its part, said it expected all of its members to have returned to work by 7:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Thursday.
GdL said management had conceded to one of its key demands, namely that a deal would not be dependent on whatever agreements were reached with other unions.
The GdL, which represents some 20,000 train drivers, is demanding a wage rise and shorter work hours as well as the right to represent other rail workers such as conductors and restaurant carriage staff.
That demand is effectively a turf war with the larger railway union EVG, which has more than 200,000 members, and which is now involved in separate, less heated, wage negotiations with DB.
"After nearly a year of this industrial dispute, we've managed to cut through the Gordian knot," said GdL chief Claus Weselsky.
And the union promised there would be no more strikes until at least June 17 while the mediation was ongoing.
But DB personnel chief Weber cautioned that the agreement to take the matter to mediation was "still not final breakthrough" in the dispute itself.
Nevertheless, "we now have a real chance to reach an agreement," he added. "We are going into the mediation with no pre-conditions." The strike, the ninth stoppage in less than a year, had begun Tuesday and initially affected freight trains, but was extended to passenger services on Wednesday, forcing the cancellation of two thirds of long-distance passenger services.
The industrial dispute centres on wages, work hours and negotiating rights between the small GdL union and the national rail operator.
In early May the union staged a nearly week-long walkout, the longest in DB's history, which industry groups estimated cost Europe's top economy almost half a billion euros (US$550 million).
Nevertheless, while GdL and management have agreed to lower their weapons, new trouble appeared to be brewing with EVG, which is threatening walkouts of its own.
Wage talks with EVG were scheduled to go into a 12th and decisive around later on Thursday.
"We will have to strike if no deal is reached," EVG chief Alexander Kirchner told the regional daily Passauer Neue Presse.
Mr Kirchner insisted that EVG was anxious to reach a deal at the negotiating table.
"But if that's not possible, we will take industrial action," he said, adding that management's offer of a 4.7-percent pay increase was "a long way off what would would be acceptable for us." Mr Kirchner also hit out at the smaller drivers' union GdL for striking.
"Only around 1,000 train drivers are striking, while more than 100,000 colleagues are keen to work," he said. "It is not acceptable if 1.5 per cent of the workforce and their strike action prevent the others from getting more money." DB's Weber said he could not say whether an agreement with EVG could be reached.
"But I hope very much that we will able to announce a good and successful day for DB tomorrow and that we can sort things out with EVG as well," Mr Weber said.
Deutsche Bahn transports around 5.5 million passengers and over 600,000 tonnes of cargo in Germany every day.